Hunger Strikes Used by Immigration Reform Advocates

Immigrant youth initiate hunger strike in front of Sen. Chuck Schumer's office June 1, 2010.

Just a few weeks after graduating from Columbia University, Yadira Alvarez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, is in her seventh day of a hunger strike in front of Sen. Charles Schumer's Manhattan offices.

She is one of a small group of young immigrants who are putting their health on the line, and for some of them, risking the unwanted attention of immigration authorities, in an effort to persuade the lawmaker to push a bill that could finally give some of them -- and many thousands of other young undocumented immigrants -- a path to legal status in this country.

"We can't be spectators anymore," said Alvarez, 22, who came to the United States in 2000 under a tourist visa.

Her group, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, began its hunger strike after failing in a series of tamer tactics, including petitions, phone banking, rallies, vigils and a "die-in" involving lying down on the floor of Schumer's, D-N.Y., offices until they were granted a meeting.

Theirs is just one of a number of hunger strikes being waged by immigration reform activists around the country, frustrated by what they see as unmet promises by President Obama to tackle immigration reform within his first year in office, and frightened by a tough new law in Arizona that would require immigrants to carry documentation and give law enforcement the power to detain anyone suspected of being undocumented.

Among the other recent hunger strikes is one that began in New York's Battery Park near the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island before heading inside a downtown church where about 40 men and women, mostly immigrants, recently fasted for 72 hours in protest and to urge Congress and the Obama administration to take action.

"We are sacrificing," said Ravi Ragbir, an immigrant from Trinidad who now lives in New Jersey, "to show how harsh and how oppressive the laws are."

"We are willing to deny ourselves food, which is life, to continue our fight," he said.

Oswaldo Cabrera, a 42-year-old immigration advocate who practiced law in his native Ecuador before crossing the desert into Laredo, Texas, 20 years ago, has held a hunger strike for more than four weeks in a series of churches in New York and New Jersey. His protest opposes U.S. immigration policies that he said inhumanely rip parents from their children.

Hunger Strikes Used to Push Immigration Reform

Cabrera lost almost 20 pounds and complained of severe back and lung pain late last week. In a conversation with, he had trouble composing his thoughts clearly, owing to his weakened state.

Several days earlier, he told the New York Daily News, "I condemn the deportations of immigrant workers and I condemn the Arizona law that is a stain on America and offends humanity."

Cabrera is executive director of the Coalicion Latinoamericana.

In May, the arrests of three activists who staged a sit-in outside the offices of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., prompted another hunger strike in Michigan.

"I don't think there's another way," said Gabriel Martinez, 27, one of the hunger strikers outside Schumer's office, "unless we want to escalate to violence."

Martinez is a graduate of John Jay College and an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who walked for five days across the desert at age 10 to reach the United States.

"We will be here as long as the body can support being without food," he said.

It remains to be seen what impact these hunger strikes will have. Some notable hunger strikers remain etched in our memory like India's Gandhi, farm worker champion Cesar Chavez, and Northern Ireland's Bobby Sands.

"Hunger strikes have a really very spotty, complicated history of success," said Mark Sawyer, professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.

They work best, he said, when the striker is suffering from an injustice and the resolution sought is simple and comprehensible, such as a prisoner wanting freedom.

Using the gambit to try to achieve something as complicated as legislation, here on the many-headed beast of immigration reform, may prove difficult, he said.

The young men and women now entering their seventh day camped out in front of Schumer's office, consuming only water and vitamins, said they plan to continue until the legislation known as the DREAM Act moves forward in Congress. Though three of the original 10 strikers have left, two new protesters joined over the weekend, and the group insists they are committed.

Alvarez, whose mother called her at the encampment on Third Avenue last week with the news that her Columbia University diploma had arrived in the mail, said that at this point, she doesn't have anything to lose. No architecture firm will hire her until she is documented.

"I'm taking the risk because I just can't sit around anymore and watch how my dream is being killed," she said. "Even though I've done everything right; I got good grades in high school, I finished college, I was a good student, I behaved. I did everything right and now this dream can't continue because I don't have documents."

If deported, she said, "I would leave with my chin up high and a smile on my face. I did as much as I could."

Sen. Schumer Targeted By Hunger Strikers

If passed, the Dream Act would offer a path to legal status to an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. It would apply only to those who arrived in the country illegally while under the age of 16 during a specified time frame, and would require that they achieve a college degree or serve two years in the military, as well as remain clear of a criminal record.

DREAM Act supporters contend that if the legislation is extracted from the comprehensive immigration legislation, it has a better chance of passage, and that passage could happen sooner. But much of the immigration reform movement disagrees and the factions have a history of clashing over strategy.

For Schumer's part, his staff has held multiple meetings with the activists and has offered the protesters the use of bathrooms.

Schumer co-sponsored the DREAM Act, and chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. His office says he is working to advance and pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would include the DREAM Act.

"Sen. Schumer recognizes the frustration of these students and their desire to see our broken immigration system fixed as soon as possible," said Mike Morey, the senator's spokesman, in a prepared statement.